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So what do I actually think about the WikiLeaks dump of U.S. embassy cables? A bunch of contradictory things, it turns out. Here’s sort of a stream of consciousness of what was going through my mind yesterday as I read about this:

  • This isn’t a whistleblower case. In fact, surprisingly little official lying of any kind has been revealed so far. Rather, it’s an action aimed very generally at weakening American influence and exposing American intentions.
  • To the extent that this is done by, say, Australians and Germans, there’s nothing unpatriotic or even wrong about this. If foreign nationals who oppose American hegemony get a chance to lob a stink bomb at America, why shouldn’t they?
  • At the same time, the American citizen who leaked this stuff — Pfc Bradley Manning, apparently — should do serious time as long as the government can convince a jury of his peers that they’ve nailed the right guy. No government in the world can, or should, tolerate this kind of massive security breach from one of its own.
  • Governments have lots of legitimate reasons for wanting to keep communications confidential. This is not some kind of weird pathology exclusive to nation states, either. You keep secrets. I keep secrets. Companies keep secrets, families keep secrets, labor unions keep secrets, nonprofits keep secrets, and your neighbors keep secrets. There’s always the risk of this stuff going too far, and there’s always the risk of your secrets getting spilled. But this is all part of the human condition, not a sign of depravity in the State Department. 
  • In general, this kind of indiscriminate data dump is a bad thing. This particular dump, for example, could conceivably hurt chances of ratifying the START treaty, strain relations with the UN, strain relations with Russia, make an attack on Iran a little bit likelier, and reduce even the meager leverage we currently have over Hamid Karzai. More broadly, it could hobble American efforts at replacing saber rattling with genuine diplomacy, which is really in nobody’s interest. 
  • And yet….even secrets that are justifiable in the short term can often end up being toxic in the long term. Routine secrecy quickly becomes a crutch, as it plainly has in the United States, and an occasional informational enema like this can have a salutary effect. Governments might have a legitimate need for secrecy, but they should also be keenly aware that there’s a risk to doing business like this. I wouldn’t want this kind of mass disclosure to become a regular occurrence, and I do think the leaker should pay for his crime, but at the same time I can’t honestly say that I’m entirely sorry this happened.

I suppose this is all very unsatisfactory, but those were the thoughts buzzing through my brain yesterday. They still are. Perhaps they’ll gel into something more definite as I give it more thought and the ramifications become more clear.

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